Columns > Published on September 5th, 2014

How to Build a Novel Soundtrack

I think creating novel soundtracks is a pretty common activity for authors. Most of you already do this. However, exactly one person asked me for advice about this particular subject, so obviously I’m going to milk this into a new article.

All right, here we go.

Novel soundtracks!

First off, why have them? Well, forming a soundtrack as you write your novel can help craft your desired atmosphere. Music is magic and has a way of influencing you more than you probably think.

However, coming up with a complete soundtrack can also be beneficial for marketing your book, too. For my first novel, Toxicity, I spent a ton of time crafting the ultimate soundtrack. Toxicity has fifty-three chapters, and I wanted to find a song that best represented each chapter. So, yes, I created a soundtrack with fifty-three songs on it. I didn’t anticipate just how crazy that was until after I finished, but seriously, that’s way too many songs.

Music is magic and has a way of influencing you more than you probably think.

I started off by going through my novel and briefly jotting down notes about each chapter. I wrote down important themes and atmospheres found in the book. Fortunately I already had a bunch of songs in mind that I thought would work really well. Hell, some of these songs even inspired sections of the book back in the early stages of the writing process.

After outlining the chapter themes and events, I browsed both my memory and my music library to search for songs that could possibly fit each individual chapter. I tried to come up with three-to-five songs for each chapter, and then forced my girlfriend to listen to all the songs and help me pick out the best ones. The majority of the time, she ended up picking my first instinct, which further developed my ongoing suspicion that my girlfriend is actually a figment of my progressively decaying imagination.

Forming the Toxicity soundtrack, I carefully examined all fifty chapters—actually, fifty-three chapters, if you include the three-part prologue—and determined what song best captured the essence of each chapter. Ideally, the reader should listen to each song either right before, during, or directly after reading the specified chapter. Fortunately, YouTube exists, so I didn’t have to worry about people not having access to the songs.

The soundtrack’s main goal is to better emphasize the book’s atmosphere while also helping my readers discover new music. I included songs by popular artists pretty much everybody is aware of, like Metallica and AC/DC, but I also tried to include little known bands like Cloud Cult and The Red Paintings. There is also a lot of Eels on it, but come on, you can’t have a successful soundtrack without Mr. E.

I also recommend blogging about each track and explaining why you chose the songs you did. I started doing this for Toxicity, but I gave up because holy crap, you guys, fifty-three songs is just too many songs to review. I’ll be doing a new soundtrack for my next novel, coming out later this month, and I definitely won’t pick as many songs this time.

Another advantage of having a soundtrack is being able to connect with people who dig the same music you do. For instance, I am a huge Modest Mouse fan. At a recent convention, I was giving out free soundtrack pamphlets I’d printed out, and one random girl passing by noticed a few tracks by Modest Mouse on the list. She immediately gasped in excitement and bought a copy of my book. Of course, this could also work against you, if a person happens to despise the band listed in your soundtrack—that’s why I tried to list a variety of genres and artists I like. But if somebody hates Modest Mouse, then I don’t want them buying my book, anyway.

That was a joke. Please buy my book. My children need school clothes. They can’t keep wearing cardboard box cutouts.

Of course, there are probably copyright laws about these soundtracks. That’s why I cleverly inserted the word “unofficial” on the pamphlet cover.

Although, I have no way of knowing if that makes it legal. I figured I would take my chances. You probably shouldn’t be like me. You should definitely look up the law first.

I do know two things for sure, though: 1) Don’t use actual lyrics from the songs and 2) Don’t include anything by Nickelback, because nobody is going to buy that shit.

About the author

Max Booth III is the CEO of Ghoulish Books, the host of the GHOULISH and Dog Ears podcasts, the co-founder of the Ghoulish Book Festival, and the author of several spooky books, including Abnormal Statistics, Maggots Screaming!, Touch the Night, and others. He wrote both the novella and film versions of We Need to Do Something, which was released by IFC Midnight in 2021 and can currently be streamed on Hulu. He was raised in Northwest Indiana and now lives in San Antonio.

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